“I was 15 when I lost my mum — who was in her 40s — to cancer. She never told me or my siblings — I have an older and a younger brother — about her illness but we could tell that she wasn’t very well.
Eventually, she went to see a GP, who told her there was a very small lump on her neck — about the size of a quail’s egg. We learnt later that the tumour didn’t just affect the functions of her ear, nose and throat, it also caused vision problems, so she had to wear glasses. The doctor told her an operation could improve her condition but she didn’t undergo the procedure as she was fearful of surgery.
My mother, being the traditional Chinese woman she was, preferred trying alternative forms of treatment. She frequently visited various temples to pray or consult a man who claimed to be a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician. They would prescribe all kinds of weird ingredients with medicinal properties like specific types of bugs that looked like cockroaches or earthworms.
“[Chemotherapy] was very harsh… She would throw up violently…at times, she was too weak to even walk ― I had to carry her on occasions...”
I can even vividly recall an occasion when I accompanied her to catch live lizards. And if you’ve tried to catch one before, you’ll know that their tails fall off when they’re threatened by a predator. Trouble is, the prescription said that she had to consume a whole live lizard! Being the obedient child, I followed my mother around in her crazy pursuit of these ingredients, without a question.
After two years spent trying these alternative treatments and seeing no improvements in her condition, she eventually decided to see the Western doctor. But by then, her tumour had already grown to the size of a chicken egg.
Since it was the 80s and technology wasn’t as advanced then, chemotherapy was very harsh on the body. As I accompanied her to her treatments, I got to witness the side effects first-hand. She would throw up violently…at times, she was too weak to even walk ― I had to carry her on occasions when there were no available wheelchairs.
My two brothers never had to lift a finger or do anything to help when my mum was unwell. In fact, I even had to wash their uniforms and their shoes — it was as if I was their maid and had to do everything.
In her final days, my mum was bedridden, so during the night, my dad and I would take turns to move her body from time-to-time, for fear that she would develop bedsores. She also wore a diaper, which I dutifully changed.
My dad, who grew up in a conservative environment, didn’t talk a lot about his feelings. He went about his daily tasks without any disruptions. I don’t remember ever seeing him become emotional. I felt that he was remaining strong to provide my mum with emotional support.
I was in Secondary 4 when my mum passed on. Needless to say, her passing affected my performance in the O-level exams. To make matters worse, my dad told me that as a girl, I should probably quit school. He also said that he couldn’t afford to put all of us in school anymore.
“After my mum died, I was forced to grow up overnight. A lot of my peers were just going to school and enjoying life… I worked at a fast food joint to make extra money to feed myself.”
Knowing that without an education, I would not be able to do anything, I told him I’d figure out a way to put myself through school. I also gave my dad my word — I assured him that I wouldn’t mix with a bad crowd as I knew whom to avoid.
In the 80s, many teens would go to discos ― there was also a group of unsavoury teens called “The Centrepoint Kids”. I was careful not to dabble in these things ― it also helped that I couldn’t afford to indulge.
Some of my dad’s friends offered to pay my school fees but I told him I’d rather not be indebted to anyone. So, I took my O-levels again ― thankfully, my school found out about my financial situation and waived my school fees.
After my mum died, I was forced to grow up overnight. A lot of my peers were just going to school and enjoying life, while I had to take care of myself. I worked at a fast food joint to make extra money to feed myself. I’d go to work right after school and went home only in the evenings at 10pm when the restaurant closed.
My dad remarried less than two years after my mum’s passing. In my mind, my step-mother swooped into our lives very quickly and took over everything my mother used to own. The both of us also couldn’t get along because I am strong-headed and opinionated. She also favoured boys, so my brothers got along very well with her. We haven’t been in contact since my dad passed in 2009.
My younger brother’s life went into a downward spiral after my mum’s passing. He turned to bad company when my mum passed, perhaps because he was too young to come to terms with the loss. He was just 11 years old. He even did a stint in prison and got involved with gangs at one point. Once, a rival gang mistook him for someone else, so he was badly injured in a fight, which left him paralysed from waist down. It wasn’t as bad for my older brother as he went to do his National Service shortly after mum died.
“I always tell [my kids] that you may be able to recoup the money you’ve spent to make your loved ones happy, but you can never bring your loved one back once they’re gone.”
It took me a very long time to come to terms with my mother’s passing. Festive periods like Mother’s Day, Christmas and birthdays were the toughest. While we do celebrate these occasions, we’re aware of my mother’s absence at the table.
Having said that, I’ve also gained much wisdom from my mother’s passing. I’ve realised that hardships doesn’t mean the end of the world — it’s a chance for you to be resourceful and independent.
Most of all, my mum’s passing has taught me that health is the most important thing anyone can have. Money isn’t everything. After all, on the day that you die, you won’t be able to take your possessions with you ― not your position or status in life; not your fame nor your wealth. Nothing.
I’ve shared my experiences with my children and also tried my best to give them opportunities to be independent. I’ve taught them to always live life to the fullest and enjoy the company of loved ones. To treasure the people that matter and be nice to them, to do things you want to do for them when they are around and not regret it only when they are dead.
I always tell them that you may be able to recoup the money you’ve spent to make your loved ones happy, but you can never bring your loved one back once they’re gone.”
Melissa Chong*, 48, a personal assistant, is mother to Kristine, 12, and Jeremy, 17.
*Not her real name.
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